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by Bamber Gascoigne

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) - pseudonym of Guillelmus (or Wilhelm) Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky


Poet who took part in all avant-garde movements in French literature at the beginning of the 20th century. Besides writing poetry, Apollinaire published semi-pornographical books; he was an innovator in the theatre of the absurd, and made known Cubism as a school of painting with his study Les peintres cubistes (1913). During the World War I Apollinaire enlisted and fought on the front. In a letter he described war as a "beautiful thing" and continued: "... despite all the risks I run, the exhaustion, the total lack of water, of everything, I am not unhappy to be here..."

"Although he lived his days among the baladins of Cubism and Futurism, he was not a modern man. He was somewhat less complex and more happy, more ancient, and stronger. (He was so unmodern that modernity seemed picturesque, and perhaps even moving, to him.) He was the "winged and sacred thing" of Platonic dialogue; he was a man of elemental and, therefore, eternal feelings; he was, when the fundaments of earth and sky shook, the poet of ancient courage and ancient honor." (Jorge Luis Borges in The Total Library, 1999)

Guillaume Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky kept his origin secret, but he was probably born in Rome, the illegitimate son of a Polish adventurer called Angelica de Kostrowitzky, a rebellious Polish girl. Her father had been a colonel in the Papal guard. Apollinaire's father was possibly a Swiss-Italian aristocrat, Francesco Flugi d'Aspermont. He disappeared early from Apollinaire's life, and the future poet was raised by his gambling mother in Italy, in Monaco, on the French Riviera, and in Paris. Apollinaire loved the idea, that his father had been Pope Leo XIII.

Angelica worked often as a casino hostess in different cities. Living apart from his mother with his brother Albert in complete freedom, Apollinaire assumed in his youth the identity of a Russian prince. He received a French education at the Collège Saint-Charles in Monaco, and afterwards in schools in Cannes and Nice. Employed as a tutor for the daughter of the German-born viscountesse de Milhau, Apollinaire traveled widely in Europe. During the summer of 1899 he went to the Ardennes region of Belgium. He had a doomed affair with a young Englishwoman named Annie Playden, who he met 1901.

At the age of 20 Apollinaire settled in Paris, where he worked for a time for a bank. He contibuted to such periodicals as La Revue blanche, La Plume, and Le Mercure de France. During his career edited a number of reviews. In 1903 he founded his own magazine, Le Festin d'Esope, and the short-lived La Revue immoraliste. His friends included such artist as Pablo Picasso, André Derain, playwright Alfred Jarry, and the painter Marie Laurencin, who was his lover between 1907 and 1912. At the age of twenty-one he traveled in Germany. In 1901-02 he worked as a tutor in the Rhineland. Although Apollinaire wrote poetry, as a member of la bande à Picasso he was more known in the following years as the advocate of modern painting. He brought Picasso and Braque together, and helped organize the cubist room 41 at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911.

A man open to new ideas, Apollinaire published satirical and semi-pornographical texts, and proclaimed that the writing of de Sade would dominate the 20th-century. He introducded the Russian theatre director Vselovod Meyerhold to the works of the Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, a who had written the play L'amore delle tre melarance (1761). In this anti-realistic farce, three princesses are imprisoned inside three oranges; two of them die of thirst. The Eccentrics save the life of the third by giving her a bucket of water. The Prince falls in love with her. Meyerhold translated the play into Russian and published the work in the inaugural issue of his journal, entitled Love for Three Oranges. Before the composer Sergey Prokofiev left Russia, Mayerhold handed him his journal, recommending that Prokofiev uses his own adaptation of the play for an opera. The revolutionary commedia dell'arte opera premiered in Chicago, on 31 December 1921; it is best remembered for its popular March. F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to the opera in Tender Is the Night: "His dream had begun in sombre majesty; navy blue uniforms crossed a dark plaza behind bands playing the second movement of Prokofieff's 'Love of Three Oranges.'"

Apollinaire's first prose work, L’Enchanteur pourrissant (1909), was illustrated with woodcuts by André Derain. The prose-poem depicted the entombment of Merlin the Enchanter. His grave is visited by a number of figures from mythology, folklore and history. They have been interpreted as Merlin's alter egos. From his love for Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin creates a new vision of men and women.

With the publication of Alcools (1913) Apollinaire was recognized as a highly original voice in contemporary poetry. Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d'Orphée (1911), initially illustrated by Raoul Dufy's woodcuts, was later set to music by Francis Poulenc. Alcools was a selection of poems written over the previous 15 years; it contains most of his poetry. Apollinare combined classical verse forms with modern imagery, involving transcriptions of street conversations overheard by change and the absence of punctuation. It opened with the poem 'Zone,' in which the tormented poet wanders through streets after the loss of his mistress. Among its other famous lyrical pieces is 'Le pont Mirabeau.' Some of its poems were inspired by Jacqueline Kolb. Annie Playden, an English governess, inspired the Rhineland piece, 'La chanson du mal-aime.'

A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin
Tu en as assez de vivre dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine
Ici même les automobiles ont l'air d'être anciennes
La religion seule est restée toute neuve la religion
Est restée simple comme les hangars de Port-Avion...

(from 'Zone')

When cubism had become a powerful force, Apollinaire published The Cubist Painters, which explored the theory of cubism and analyzed psychologically the chief cubists and their works. According to Apollinaire, art is not a mirror held up to nature, so cubism is basically conceptual rather than perceptual. By means of the mind, one can know the essential transcendental reality that subsists "beyond the scope of nature." Ten days after the appearance of the book, Apollinaire deserted cubism for Orphism. The concept was also invented by him. Describing the painting of Robert Delauny, he said: "the art of painting new structures out of elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere but have been created entirely by the artist himself, and have been endowed by him with the fullness of reality." (Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith, 1985, p. 472) Among Orphicist artist were Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, and Frantisek Kupka. The Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico made in 1914 two paintings in tribute to Apollinaire. In Portrait of Apollinaire as a Premonition the poet uses sunglasses - he is blind. His neckties Apollinaire kept in a bottle; Picabia, using China ink, painted a tie on Apollinaire's shirt-front.

In 1914 Apollinaire had a short-lived affair with Louise de Coligny, then with a schoolteacher called Madeleine Pagès, to whom he became engaged, and eventually settled down with Jacqueline Kolb, whom he married in 1918. Disenchanted with his reputation as a dangerous foreigner and thief - in 1911 he had been detained for a week on suspicion of stealing Leonardo's Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum in Paris - he took out French nationality and enlisted in the infantry. (Apollinaire was not one of the thieves, but a casual friend of his had stolen some statuettes from the Louvre. Though he was famous for his erratic conduct, the publicity he gained from this episode was entirely repugnant to him.)

Apollinaire fought on the front in Champagne until 1916, when he received a head wound while reading a new issue of the Mercure de France. Some of his poems Apollinaire wrote in the trench under fire: "The sky is starry with Boche shells / The marvelous forest where I live is giving a ball." Apollinaire's medical treatment included two operations on his skull. Unfit for active service, Apollinaire took a job in the Bureau of Censorship. Much of his war poetry was published posthumously.

During and after his convalescence in Paris Apollinaire continued to arrange new exhibitions and staged his one play The Breasts of Tiresias in 1917 (written 1903), about a housewife, Therèse, who changes sex and lets her breasts floating upwards as toy balloons. Apollinaire called the play "Drame surréaliste," making the term known in his preface. "I have coined the adjective 'surrealist' which does not mean symbolical . . . but rather well defines a tendency of art, if it is no newer than anything else under the sun, has at least never been utilized to form an artistic or literary creed." In this successor of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi Apollinaire combined his own sexual obsessions with a satirical exploitation of Greek legend and ironic preoccupation with the low birth rate in 19c-20c France.

Le Poète assassiné (1916, The Poet Assassinated) was a collage of the great fictional poet Croniamantal from his birth to his breakthrough as a poet and death at the hand of a mob. Apollinaire composed the work from pieces which he had saved for years. Its a broken, episodic narrative changes from farcical to exalted: "Others profited from the intermission by vomiting wildly, their eyes bulging out of their heads; their neighbours encouraged them with an imperturbable seriousness. Hannes Irlbeck, who had gotten back on his feet, but not without great effort, sniffed and murmured. 'There's no more beer in Munich.'"

Apollinaire died of influenza in the great epidemic of 1918, on November 9, in Paris, in his apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The cortège following his coffin to Pére-Lachaise Cemetery included Picasso, Max Jacob, André Salmon, Cocteau, Paul Fort, Léger and many other leading artists and literary figures. Apollinaire entered the army records as "Mort pour la France".

Experimental Calligrammes (1918), Apollinaire's poetic record of his war experiences, came out a few months before his death. André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, and Louis Aragon and other poets of the younger generation took up its call to investigate new worlds of expression. Cubism left its marks on several literary works and authors. Max Jacon, André Salmon, Pierre Reverdy, and Gertrude Stein were intimately connected with the cubist painters. In prose, critics have seen cubist aesthetics in André Gide's novel Les Fauxmonnayeurs (1925). Apollinaire's stature has continued to grow since his death, as the precursor of surrealism and as a modernist poet. The Breasts of Tiresias was made into an opera (1947) by Francis Poulenc.

For further reading: Apollinaire by Marcel Adéma (1954); Apollinaire, Poet among the Painters by F. Steegmuller (1963, 1971, 1973); Apollinaire by M. Davies (1964); Le dossier d'Alcools by M. Décaudin (1965); Giullaume Apollinaire by S. Bates (1967); Guillaume Apollinaire by P. Adéma (1968); Guillaume Apollinaire by L. Breuning (1969); Les Critiques de notre temps et Apollinaire, ed. by C. Tournadre (1971); Apollinaire by R. Couffignal (1975); Giullaume Apollinaire by L.C. Breuning (1980); One Evening of Light Mist in London: The Story of Annie Playden and Giullaume Apollinaire by J. Adlard (1980); Reading Apollinaire by T. Mathews (1987); Giullaume Apollinaire by J. Grimm (1993); The Cubist Epoch by Douglas Cooper (1994); Cubist Aesthetic Theories by Christopher Gray (1996); Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory by Peter Read (2010); Apollinaire on the Edge: Modern Art, Popular Culture, and the Avant-Garde by Willard Bohn (2010); Apollinaire in the Great War 1914-18 by David Hunter (2014); Reading Apollinaire's Alcools by Willard Bohn (2017); Dictionnaire Apollinaire, edited by Daniel Delbreil (2 vols.; 2019) - See surreaalism and futurism: Giovanni Papini, Mayakovsky, Aaro Hellaakoski (Finnish poet), André Breton. Finnish Futurism: Mika Waltari and Olavi Paavolainen published in 1928 a collection of poems, Valtatiet, which praised machines, urbanism and speed according to principles of Futurism. Huom.: Apollinairen taustasta tiedetään sen verran että hän oli helsinkiläissyntyisen puolattaren ja italialaisen upseerin avioton poika.

Selected works:

  • La Gráce et le Maintien Français, 1902 (with Molina da Silva)
  • Les Onze Mille Verges ou les Amours d'un hospodar, 1906
    - The Debauched Hidspodar (tr. anon., 1967) / Les Onze Mille Verges, or, The Amorous Adventures of Prince Mony Vibescu (translated by Donald Revell, 1976) / The Eleven Thousand Rods or, the Loves of a Hospodar  (in Flesh Unlimited: Two Erotic Novellas, translated by Alexis Lykiard, 1995)
    - Hirveä Hospodar (teoksessa Hirveä Hospodar ja Nuoren Don Juanin urotyöt, suom. Väinö Kirstinä, 1972)
  • Les mémoires d'un jeune Don Juan, 1907
    - The Memoirs of a young Don Juan (in Flesh Unlimited: Two Erotic Novellas, translated by Alexis Lykiard, 1995)
    - Nuoren Don Juanin urotyöt (teoksessa Hirveä Hospodar ja Nuoren Don Juanin urotyöt, suom. Väinö Kirstinä, 1972)
    - Other classic pornographic books:
    Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1349-53), John Cleland's Fanny Hill (1748-49), My Secret Life (1890), Pauline Réage's (pseudonym of Dominique Aury, 1908-1998) The Story of O (1954).
  • L’Enchanteur pourrissant, 1909 [The Rotting Magician]
    - Mätänevä velho (suom. Riikka Mahlamäki, 2004)
  • L'Hérésiarque et Cie, 1910
    - The Heresiarch and Co. (translated by Remy Inglis Hall, 1965) / The Wandering Jew and Other Stories (illustrated by Antony Little Hart-Davis, translated by Rèmy Inglis Hall, 1967)
  • Le Théâtre italien, 1910
  • Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d'Orphée, 1911 (illustrated by Raoul Dufy)
    - Le Bestiaire (selections, in Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Roger Shattuck, 1971) / Bestiary: Or the Parade of Orpheus (translated by Pepe Karmel, 1980)
  • Pages d'histoire, chronique des grands siècles de France, 1912
  • Les peintres cubistes, 1913
    - The Cubist Painters (translated by Peter Read, 2002)
  • L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque nationale, 1913 (with F. Fleuret and L. Perceau)
  • L'Antitradition futuriste, 1913
  • La Fin de Babylone, 1914
  • Les Trois Don Juan, 1914
  • Alcools, 1914
    - Alcools (translated by Donald Revell, 1995)
    - Alcools (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1977)
  • Case d'armons, 1915
  • Le Poète assassiné, 1916
    - The Poet Assassinated (translated by Matthew Josephson, 1923)
    - Murhattu runoilija (suom. Jaana Seppänen, 2014)
  • Vitam impendere amori, 1917 (illustrated by André Rouveyre)
  • Les Mamelles de Tirésias, 1917
    - The Breasts of Tiresias (translated by Louis Simpson, in Modern French Theatre, 1966; Maya Slater, 2009) 
  • Calligrammes, 1918
    - Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (translated by Anne Hyde Greet, 1980)
  • Le Flâneur des deux rives, 1918
  • L'Esprit nouveau et les Poètes, 1918
  • La Femme assise, 1920
  • Contes choisis, 1922
  • Il y a, 1925 (rev. ed., 1949)
  • Anecdotiques, 1926 (ed. Marcel Adéma)
  • Les Épingles, 1928
  • Contemporains pittoresques, 1929
  • Ombre de mon amour, 1947
  • Lettres à sa marraine 1915-1918, 1948 (introduction by Marcel Adéma)
  • Couleurs du temps, 1949
    - Color of Time (translated by Barbara Gerber, 1980)
  • ‎Que faire?, 1950 (edited by Noëmi Blumenkranz-Onimus and Jean Marcenac)
  • Selected Writings, 1950 (translated by Roger Shattuck)
  • Tendre comme le souvenir, 1952
  • Casanova, comédie parodique, 1952
  • Le Guetteur mélancolique, 1952
  • Textes inédits, 1952
  • Poèmes à Lou, 1955
  • Œuvres poétiques complètes, 1956
  • Chroniques d'art, 1902-1918, 1961 (ed. L.C. Breunig)
    - Apollinaire on Art, Essays and Reviews 1902-1918 (edited by Leroy C. Breunig; translated by Susan Suleiman, 1972)
  • Les Diables amoureux, 1964 (ed. Michael Décaudin)
  • Selected Poems, 1965 (expanded 1986, translated by Oliver Bernard)
  • Oeuvres complètes de Guillaume Apollinaire, 1966
  • Lettres à Lou, 1969 (edited by Michel Décaudin)
  • La Democratie sociale, 1969
  • Hunting Horns, 1970 (translated by Barry Morse)
  • La Bréhatine: cinéma-drame, 1971
  • Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, 1971 (translated by Roger Shattuck)
  • Zone, 1972 (translated by Samuel Beckett)
  • Œuvres en prose complètes, 1977
  • Correspondance / Guillaume Apollinaire, André Level, 1978
  • Poésies libres, 1978 (edited by J-J Pauvert)
  • Apollinaire journaliste: textes retrouvés et textes inédits avec présentation et notes, 1979
  • Soldes, poèmes inédits, 1985
  • The Self-Dismembered Man: Selected Later Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, 2004 (translated by Donald Revell)
  • Zone: Selected Poems, 2015 (selected and translated by Ron Padgett; introduction by Peter Read)
  • Correspondance générale, 2015 (édition de Victor Martin-Schmets
  • Selected Poems, 2015 (translated with an introduction and notes by Martin Sorrell)
  • Correspondance: 1913-1918 / Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Guillaume, 2016 (édition de Peter Read; introduction de Laurence Campa et Peter Read)
  • Le cinéma de Guillaume Apollinaire: des manuscrits inédits pour un nouvel éclairage / Carole Aurouet, 2018 (postface de Isabelle Diu)

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